Few topics are as troubling to address as a school shooting. Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, the topic has been stitched in the public consciousness. With gun violence on the rise, these occurrences are only more prevalent. We’ve seen portrayals of victims and their families struggling with the aftermath of violence. However, the perspective of the perpetrators can be all the more horrifying to explore. “And Then I Go” enters the minds of two kids who plan and execute a school shooting. The characters are hard to sympathize with, even as the film tries hard. However, it’s a novel pursuit that only further underlines the problem with bullying and the need for children to talk through their feelings.
Edwin (Arman Darbo) and Flake (Sawyer Barth) are misunderstood life long friends who can’t seem to find their footing in junior high. People beat up on them and they seem to always be in trouble. Edwin’s parents – a sarcastic Father (Justin Long) and frustrated Mother (Melanie Lynskey) – struggle to understand their child. At an all time low, the boys hatch a plan to shoot up their school using Flake’s Father’s guns. Flake seems intent on this plan, almost as if it gives him a purpose. However, Edwin finds a talent for art and begins to question whether he wants to throw his life away on this plan to get revenge.
The heart and soul of the film belongs to the volatile friendship between Edwin and Flake. The school shooting plan, while an intimate expression of their wounds from bullying, ends up driving these boys farther away from each other. Both actors are able to tap into the mountains of pain both boys feel. Barth’s Flake doesn’t have the emotional tools to register what he is doing is wrong. Darbo’s Edwin, however, seems racked with guilt each day the plan looms closer. Darbo is able to depict Edwin as a kid who wants to speak out and say what is going on in his life but can’t bring himself to be vulnerable.
The adult actors take more of a backseat to the story, but are uniformly specific and wonderful. The always reliable Melanie Lynskey does most of the heavy lifting as Janice, Edwin’s exasperated Mom. She wants so badly for her child to open up to her, but can’t seem to coax the truth out of him. Her husband, Tim (played with a unique aloofness by Justin Long) uses humor to diffuse and escape from tougher conversations. The school is populated by the normal tropes – warm teacher (Carrie Preston), frustrated principal (Tony Hale) and harder teacher (Melonie Diaz) – all done well enough by talented actors. However, these scenes, which is where the bullying takes place, feel the weakest and most sketched out of the film.
When dealing with topics as emotionally fraught as school shootings, one walks a fine line between reverent and exploitive. More recently, “13 Reasons Why” used its “serious thematic material” card to justify rather graphic content that was graphic solely for the name of art rather necessity to the story. “And Then I Go” refrains from any sort of graphic conclusion, which would be catastrophically hard to watch. However, merely being at the scene provokes such a personal and visceral response.
Past films about child muderers, such as “Heavenly Creatures” or “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” used bolder visual techniques either to desensitize or remove the viewer a bit from the raw nature of the violence. Scenes such as kids playing with guns, simulating suicide or plotting the death of their classmates here are all very queasy. The film treats these boys’ intentions as real, which makes the outcome all the more horrifying. The film definitely recognizes the line between revenant and exploitive and careful around it. I’m still processing where I see the film in regards to that line.